Thursday, November 18, 2010

If The Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me

Ted Turner once said, "To be happy in this world, first you need a cell phone and then you need an airplane. Then you're truly wireless." I disagree with the happy part (probably because I don't have a jet) but it is nice to have a cell phone here.

The above picture is the model I have. Many people here refer to it as a "throwaway phone" because it is so cheap and simple. Despite this fact, it serves its function well, and I will not be too sad if I lose it or if it gets stolen. One curious thing about my phone is that the speaker is on the back of the phone. To hear people I sometimes have to turn the phone around backwards.

It even has a flashlight at the top. In Setswana, this phone is called "sedi la me" which translates to "my light." When I first got the phone, I remember thinking that a flashlight was a stupid thing to put on a cell phone. As it turns out, its a great thing. I cannot count the number of times I have used it to find something in the dark, light my path at night, or using it when the power goes out (which has been frequent in the last month).

The phones here work a little differently because the vast majority of them (including mine) are prepaid. There are three major companies that offer service and if you need more airtime, you simply find someone who is selling it. There are easily thousands of places to buy it in Francistown, from the post office all the way down to the street vendors. You get a little card with a code on it, input that number into your phone, and then you have more airtime. I like having the phone be prepaid. I don't have any bills to pay and I can never get charged for overages. If I don't have airtime, I cannot make calls or send texts.

It costs me about 6 Pula (about $1) per minute to the call the US and is as much as 3 Pula (about 50 cents) per minute to make domestic calls. On my $9 a day budget and at those prices, I don't call too much. I do send a lot of texts (1,986 since I got my phone). Texts to any phone in Botswana are 25 Thebe (about 4 cents) and I can send one to the US for about 1 Pula (15 cents).

The price of talking on the phone leads to some curious behavior here. It is not considered rude to answer your phone no matter where you are. You never know who might be calling and since it costs nothing to receive a call, you might as well talk on someone else's dime (or Pula). I have seen people answer the phone at ceremonies and in the middle of meetings. This wasn't the "Hey. Let me call you back" conversation either. This person answered the phone and sat there having a conversation in the middle of the meeting.

Also, because it costs money to make a call but not receive one, people will dial your number and then hang up as soon as you answer, hoping you will call them back. I have found this one to be especially annoying because it is always from a number I do not know. I had one person do this dial and then hang up routine 5 times over the course of a Sunday.

It is still a little mind boggling to me that I can have a little, cheap phone that will make or receive a call to someone 10,000 miles away in the US. Having a phone doesn't exactly fit into the Peace Corps Volunteer stereotype, but it sure makes life here a little easier and a lot more connected.